“There’s a lot of things leading to (the poor defense). Tonight they had 70 points in our paint,” Walton said on Spectrum Sportsnet after the game. “There were times (Joel) Embiid just drove the ball the length of the court and dunked.”
As seen in the aforementioned play, Joel Embiid (who scored 37 points on only 16 shots) simply collected the loose ball and strolled up the middle of the court en route to an uncontested dunk. It was far from the only such play, but it was a rough sequence that exemplified the type of defensive effort (or more accurately, lack of it) that the Lakers played with on Sunday.
The Lakers’ defense got rocked against the Sixers, as the team allowed the most points they’ve let an opponent in regulation all season. Philadelphia also shot 57.7 percent from the field, and 50 percent from beyond the arc.
“Tonight clearly was not good enough defensively,” Walton said, “(We) didn’t get any stops throughout the game and we’ve got to get better… We’ve got to get back to the way we were defending earlier this season.”
The Lakers — who are now 28-28 and 2.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the West after their recent defeat — have suffered a noticeable decline in their defense in recent weeks.
Since January 20th (the last ten games) the Lakers have had the worst defensive rating (122.1 points per 100 possessions) in the league according to Cleaning the Glass. Prior to this most recent stretch, the Lakers were sixth in the league in terms of defensive efficiency.
Walton, who looked noticeably more restless than usual after the road loss, harped on the need for the team to get back to their stellar effort on the defensive end, especially with only 26 games left in the regular season and their playoff lives still up in the air.
“For where we’re trying to go and what we’re trying to do, we’ve got to find our passion for playing defense again. Defense is going to be everything for our group over this final stretch of the season,” Walton said.
Contextually, the Lakers’ recent defensive woes could be tied to several factors. In their last ten games, the team has faced only two opponents with sub .500 records, and have had to play the Warriors and Sixers twice during this stretch (both of whom are top-ten offenses).
They have also had to reincorporate LeBron James back into the lineup, in concert with what was a tumultuous trade deadline period where many of the team’s young players noticeably, and understandably, were impacted by their names being in constant trade rumors.
Another potential cause for the defensive lapses is that the team has been without arguably their best perimeter and team defender, Lonzo Ball.
Ball, who has been out with an injury since Jan. 19th, has been sorely missed on both sides of the floor, but far more so on defense. On the season, the Lakers are allowing only 106 points per 100 possessions with Ball on the floor. With him sitting, the team is giving up 112.9.
“I think getting Zo back into the mix is definitely one thing,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said on Spectrum Sportsnet when asked how the team could improve defensively. “He’s had a hell of a season defensively and we kind of feed off of him. He’s picking up 94 feet, getting stops all over the floor and has great defensive instincts.”
Still, Kuzma said the team has to get better even while Ball is out of the lineup.
“Regardless of having him or not, that’s not an excuse. It’s all about having effort and communication, and getting the new guys to get into it as well,” Kuzma said.
The Lakers have seemingly had the cards stacked against themselves for a majority of the season with a deluge of injuries and trade rumors hitting a new roster trying to come together like a tsunami. The one constant and strength they have hung their hats on throughout has been their defense, and now, even that is starting to crumble.
Fortunately, the team is expected to get Ball back in the next month or so, and with James also looking closer to himself, the Lakers may finally all be healthy at once.
That would be a much needed development for their defense and their playoff chances, but no one is going to feel sorry for what the Lakers have experienced this season, and in some respects they haven’t done themselves any favors. Still, they have to figure out how to get back to the defensive level they were at earlier this season, or they aren’t going to have any postseason basketball to worry about getting their defense ready for.